I grew up without any kind of Advent traditions. I had no wreath with lighted candles, nor did I sing the hymns of this season I have since come to love. My mother did keep Christmas as much to the last minute as possible for us; we did not rush to it. She focused on the nativity and did her best to duck other people's demands for pictures of my little brother and me with Santa Claus. But only when I was grown-up did I realize there was a whole season devoted to preparing for the arrival of Jesus.
It’s a season that reminds us how askew things can be in the world. Last week we heard Jesus warning that his own arrival would take us by surprise and upset our expectations. And this week we meet the one who came to prepare the way for him.
John the Baptist went out into the wilderness when despair for the world grew in him, and every Advent we find him there by the Jordan, preaching and baptizing and basically raising hell and heaven with anyone who will listen. Just when we are calculating how much time we have left before we must mail that package, when we are doing the mental geometry about our wrapping paper supplies and the algebra of pleasing others, he appears. Just when we wonder if that beaded blouse we bought ten years ago ever went to the dry cleaner and can we get it cleaned in time for the office party, he takes the stage. Just as we try to remember where we stored the sweater that used to be cute but now belongs at a young person’s Ugly Christmas Sweater themed party, he raises his cry.
He is the voice, crying in the wilderness, in the wild place with the wild things, clothed in skins and eating nothing but locusts and honey.Just when we are wondering why Weight Watchers brought out a new plan that punishes carb-eating and alcohol-imbibing in the midst of the holidays, he rears his head, raises his voice and demands our attention.
Turn away from your sinful ways, and turn toward God. The voice crying out in the wilderness warns of what is to come, a fire-baptizing God-made-man who will sort out the evil from the good, who will shake us up and leave behind the people who don’t get the message.
He roars his message, calls names and dunks people into the waters of the Jordan as a sign that their sins are forgiven and they will live a different life, a life of keeping a sharp lookout for the one coming after him. He comes to us, every Advent, to remind us that the sweet story of a baby born in a stable is only the beginning.
Turn away from the things that separate you from God and pay attention!!
Something new is coming.
And in between hanging that huge wreath out front (which included a field trip to the bell tower for me that I found a little nerve-wracking!) and the hanging of greens in the sanctuary and the assorted preparations we will make in our homes, we wonder how we can keep from being wild and distracted and where in the world we will find a little peace.
It’s that peace we find in the little snippet of Isaiah we heard when we lit the Advent wreath:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9, NRSV)
When the one who is coming finishes threshing us and baptizing us with fire, we will get to live in that unlikely peace. Predators will lie down next to their innocent prey, and poisonous serpents will leave babies alone, and carnivores will be happy with straw, and all will be delight.
At our house, a carved St. Francis about six inches high looks over a collection of figures of cats and dogs and a lion and a lamb. It’s a tradition that when we get the Christmas decorations out, the animals surround Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, all still at peace together. It’s my own reminder of the peace of wild things envisioned by the prophet. But this isn’t really a story about animals getting along together. They live according to their nature, and even if, like me, you avert your eyes or change the channel when the lion catches up with the zebra, you have to admit that’s the way God made them.
Like John, Isaiah held out a hope that people might find God’s peace. In a kinder, more poetic fashion, Isaiah pictured a world someplace beyond war and victimization and persecution, a place where everyone would know God so well that the temptation to hurt and damage others would quite simply cease to exist.
The funny thing is that Isaiah’s vision of peace sounds a lot more like most of what we know about Jesus than John’s fire-breathing thresher. Later in Matthew’s gospel, John, by now in jail, will send Jesus a message, asking if he really is the one John was talking about, after all. Could he possibly be, given the meals he eats, and the company he keeps? Should the Lamb of God sit down with tax-collecting wolves and asps of ill repute?
He would do all sorts of other unlikely things: fall asleep in the back of the boat, go into the wilderness to pray, get himself arrested…you know the rest of the story.
But mostly he would talk to people, just like us, telling stories to them that we still read today, touching their hurt places and making them well and leaving us the reminder that love is for everyone, no matter how poor or disordered or difficult they may seem be.
That’s all good news, especially when we’re feeling poor or disordered or difficult ourselves. If you haven’t felt any of those ways lately, I salute you, and would like to know your secret! Because even at the best of times, even when we know the right things to do and have all the necessary preparation and advantages, life is complicated and challenging.
We may wish we had the gifts of the wolf and the lion and the adder and the asp, their natural abilities in the area of self-preservation. We divide ourselves from the rest of the world and picture other people in those roles and ourselves as the gentle lambs and the innocent children.
I promise you this, so did the Pharisees and the Sadduccees who went out to the river to see what John was doing, and to be baptized by him. By their heritage and by their practice and by their understanding of scripture, they were the ones in the right relationship with God. Or so they thought.
But John, first, and then Jesus, would push them over and over again to realize that it doesn’t matter where we worship or what we wear or who our granddaddy was, it matters how open we are to God’s love and forgiveness and how willing we are to share God’s love with others.
What matters is being willing to own up to the ways we are unwilling and disconnected and to turn away from those attitudes and tendencies and turn toward God.
It is the cry of Advent.
Turn around and see what is coming.
Turn around and see Jesus.
Turn around and see God’s vision for the future.
Turn around and see all the world, content together.
Turn around and see the peace of wild things. Amen.